As the Ravens begin their roster-building process for 2020 — with the 2019 season ending more abruptly than they had hoped — all eyes will be on outside linebacker Matthew Judon, the top priority among the Ravens’ 17 would-be free agents.
According to a report from ESPN, the Ravens will consider using the franchise tag on Judon and then trading him, a route taken last year by teams with pending free-agent pass rushers.
Of course, the Ravens also could use the tag on Judon and retain him, hoping to sign him to a long-term extension, or they could let him walk via free agency, which has been their mode of operation in the past with pass rushers such as Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee and Za’Darius Smith.
But for the past decade, the Ravens had an edge-setting, pass-rushing anchor in Terrell Suggs, making the departure of a pass rusher more bearable. They have no such incumbent if Judon goes.
Judon, 27, led the Ravens with a career-high 9.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits this past season, and even if Judon returns, adding an edge rusher is considered one of the team’s most pressing needs. The Ravens finished 18th in the league with 37 sacks. Tyus Bowser ranked second on the team with five.
Teams have between Feb. 25 and March 10 to apply the franchise tag to a player. The team and tagged player then have until July 15 to work out a long-term extension, or the player must play out the season under the tag.
The Ravens opted against using the franchise tag last year on inside linebacker C.J. Mosley or Smith, then lost both to free agency. The Ravens last used the franchise tag on kicker Justin Tucker in 2016, then signed him to a long-term deal that summer.
The franchise tag for a linebacker is expected to cost about $16.6 million, which would be fully applied to the 2020 cap. A long-term extension with Judon could cost at least that much in average annual value, but depending on the structure the cap number would be lower in the early years of the deal. The Ravens have about $29 million in cap space according to Spotrac, which tracks player contracts.
At his season-ending news conference, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Judon is at the top of the team’s priority list among its 17 pending unrestricted free agents, but he acknowledged that bringing him back will be difficult.
A source said the team and Judon briefly discussed an extension last year but were far apart, and with free agency now looming, Judon and his agent surely would like to see what he could command on the open market. They saw Judon’s former teammate, Smith, land a four-year, $66 million deal ($20 million guaranteed) with the Green Bay Packers as a market reference, and Judon now has a Pro Bowl appearance on his resume, something Smith did not have at the time.
The Ravens do have the leverage — albeit costly — of the franchise tag, and they could use that in a tag-and-trade scenario.
For a blueprint, the Ravens need only look to last year. The Kansas City Chiefs tagged linebacker Dee Ford, then traded him to the San Francisco 49ers the day before free agency began for a second-round pick. The Chiefs later traded for defensive end Frank Clark, who had been tagged by the Seattle Seahawks, with first- and second-round picks headed to Seattle.
If the Ravens lose Judon as a free agent, they would recoup a compensatory pick in return, but no higher than a third-rounder. Judon doesn’t have the pedigree of either Ford or Clark — each of whom were heading into free agency with a pair of double-digit sack seasons to his credit — so general manager Eric DeCosta figures to be assessing Judon’s value in draft capital as well as money.
Judon, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Grand Valley State in 2016 and has become one of the Ravens’ vocal leaders, kept quiet during the season about his pending free agency, saying he was focused on the Ravens’ run toward the playoffs.
After the upset loss to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs, Judon, who earlier had joked that he already has his house picked out should he re-sign with the Ravens, said, “I love it in Baltimore. I’ve told y’all this every time y’all ask. … But ultimately, that’s a decision that comes from them and me. We have to sit down and talk about some things.”
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